The Nightingale, which makes its North American debut at Sundance today, is writer-director Jennifer Kent’s first follow-up to her 2014 smash horror hit, The Babadook. The two films couldn’t be more different in scope and style: The Babadook is an intimate, modern-day horror story of motherhood gone very awry, while The Nightingale is a sprawling tale of systemic racism, misogyny, and violence in Tasmania in the 1800s. But Kent’s latest nonetheless reveals a fascinating through line in her work, which centers on, as she puts it, “disrespect for the feminine” — and the inciting power of female rage.
The Nightingale follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict caring for her husband (Michael Sheasby) and baby as she serves out a sentence under the abusive Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who refuses to let her leave even after she’s done her time. Early on in the film, Lieutenant Hawkins commits an inconceivable crime against Clare and her family. Enraged and devastated, Clare sets out into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness to get her revenge, with help from a young Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
The film is violent, going from harrowing moment to harrowing moment — something critics remarked upon at its Venice premiere, with the Film Stage calling it “some of the most atrocious on-screen violence in recent memory.” But even as it engages with (and graphically depicts) sexual violence, The Nightingale has something of a hopeful message — about healing, both on a micro and macro scale, but also about female anger: how, when repressed, it can be dangerous and even fatal, but when expressed, it can act as a catalyzing force for change. It’s an apt subject for our time — as are the points The Nightingale makes about cyclical, structural discrimination — so I was eager to catch up with Kent before the film’s premiere to talk about it.
Some spoilers below for The Nightingale.
Vulture: You’ve said that this movie “nearly killed you.” Why?
Jennifer Kent: It was a physical ordeal. We were shooting on an island [Tasmania] that is not a small island; it’s the size of Denmark, but it’s removed from the mainland. So it has next to no infrastructure. They support a lot of filmmaking, but there’s not a population big enough to have experienced crew. So we had to bring over most equipment, and crew, and cast. And logistically, it’s an overcast film that’s shot largely outdoors, so we were at the mercy of the weather and no contingency days whatsoever.
We spent three months rushing, in the wilderness. And also, because of the subject matter, we would get through one scene that was really tough and then we’d go, “Okay. Well, at least we’ve done that,” and then we’d have another one [like it] directly after. And I had to be there to support my actors, because I worked as an actor and I know how it is to handle this kind of material, and do it in a way that’s conscious and sensitive. It takes a lot from your cast and crew.
Talk to me a little bit about coming up with the concept for this. This is a really heavy film. But why this specific time period, this specific place, and why a rape-revenge story?
I don’t think it is a rape-revenge film. I think it actually works in the opposite direction to a film like that — I find those films really hard going and a real turnoff. For me, this is a film about love in a very desperate time, and we live in desperate times. And I didn’t sit down to consciously write about this. I wrote the film in 2015, before the world seemed to explode to land us where we are now, but it was my heartfelt reaction to the disrespect for the feminine across the planet. I don’t go into things in an intellectual manner; I just write what I feel from my heart is necessary, and that’s what came out.
Was there a specific “disrespect for the feminine” that inspired you?
No. I think it’s me in the world going, What’s happening here? How are we treating each other? What are the alternatives to violence? Because I look at Hollywood cinema, I look at other places in the world, and cinema is so carelessly and recklessly violent. And that’s how we treat violence now: as an entertainment, as a stress relief. In this film, I can show the true impact of what it does to people. The film is heavy. But it’s heavy what violence does to people, and I think I wanted to make a film that makes that conscious, and makes people aware of the true implications, so that they can sit with it and feel it. It causes a lot of pain. Though I think ultimately for me, this film isn’t about violence, it’s about the love between two very unlikely people.
I do want to speak about the violence, though, because the film has a lot of it, and I’m curious where the line was for you, and how you communicated it to your actors. How did you decide how far to go in the rape scenes, for example? Or in the particularly graphic murder scenes?
It’s important to know that this is my history; this is our country’s history. And the history of your country! I really didn’t go anywhere near what people went through during colonization. I felt I had a strong moral compass, an ethical compass, and I took it to a place where I felt was necessary.
But I don’t see those scenes as rape scenes. I mean, that language sort of irks me a little, because it’s not a rape scene, it’s a scene of someone’s soul being destroyed.
If you look at any rape scene in cinema, you will see women’s naked bodies. That, for example, for me was a no go. I didn’t want to look at it from the male gaze. If you look at the scenes you’re referring to, they’re really just close-ups of faces. For me, it was important for people to understand what happens during those terrible moments — which happen all the time throughout the world, not just 200 years ago. I wanted people to understand that it’s about power and it’s about destruction. Those were my guidelines.
What is your direction like in these specific scenes — the rape scenes, the murder scenes? How do you keep in touch with your actors, making sure they’re okay on a physical level, an emotional level?
Firstly, I did a lot of research. I was very, very particular on making these scenes very authentic in terms of the behavior of the abuser, and the behavior of the so-called victim. We had psychological advisers [as well]. But when you’re dealing with actors, you have to come at it with two things: a hell of a lot of love and care, sensitivity, and also a lot of preparation. Scenes that involved any kind of violence were heavily — not choreographed, but physically placed so that the actors felt safe. You can’t just walk on set the day of shooting that scene and [have] the actors not know physically where they’re going to be in the space. We work together, like planning a dance with no emotion in the scene, and getting them to a place through rehearsals to develop the dynamic, but also create the physical actions of the scene. It’s very tough. You have to have as closed a set as possible, and have very sensitive crews, which I had.
There’s a line of criticism, and I’ve seen it a little bit in some of The Nightingale’s reviews, where critics or readers or viewers object to violent rape being depicted onscreen. There’s this idea that it’s been sort of exploited and overdone — I’m thinking, for example, about criticisms over the rape scenes on HBO. I’m curious what you think about that sort of philosophy?
It seems a little immature to me, to be honest, a little naïve. I can understand people not wanting to see things if they’ve had bad events happen in their lives and it’s triggering. I completely understand that, and I would protect people’s right to make that decision. But this to me really indicates a massive problem, because there are people who don’t want to accept that this happens and it’s a terrible thing. And if it’s done in a way that’s incredibly sensitive and about the story, what are they worried about? I don’t understand that.
I think I actually have a responsibility. For example, we have a population of Aboriginal people here who have been annihilated or have been in attempted annihilation. For me to go, Oh, that just upsets me to watch it. I don’t want to know about that. I’m not going to explore that — it doesn’t bring their story to life, it doesn’t promote evolution, it doesn’t promote change in our behavior. And in this film in particular, I’ve really done a lot to make sure that that character who is committing those heinous acts is a human being. I’m very interested in looking at someone like that and their behavior, because I think that’s the key to evolution. We’re in this mess in the world because people do want to turn away from it, but we need to examine our behavior as well as others’ behavior and ask: “How do I contribute to the violence in the world?” I think it’s actually a life-and-death question.
The most fascinating part of this movie, to me, is that nobody has clean hands. Clare is openly racist. Even the man who acts kindly toward her and takes her in for the night is shown being dismissive of his wife.
The cookie-cutter, good-versus-evil that we’re often fed in cinema is rubbish. It’s not true. It’s not real. It’s a comfort perhaps, but it’s not honest. And I feel that humans are flawed. For example that old man — I think he’s a beautiful man, and he’s in a time where that’s how he talked to his wife, but no human being is all good or all evil. Including Hawkins, the lieutenant in question in the center of the film. I feel for him, actually.
What do you see as redeeming about him?
I don’t know if it’s redeeming, but to me, I’m interested in creating human characters, not characters that are approved of or disapproved of. And I think he’s a very deeply damaged human being, and I feel for someone who doesn’t have the capacity to know how to love. Because we’re on this planet to love and evolve, and if someone can’t do that, what kind of hell is that? We look at people who are causing all the problems in the world, and it’s easy to see them as not human. They are human, and I’m interested in finding out what the damage is. It’s not about forgiving them or letting them off the hook — but unless we explore the darkness in our own nature, how are we ever going to evolve through it? We can’t. So, for me it’s very important to look at humans in a very balanced and complex way. That’s my intention.
How do you translate that belief system offscreen? When you look at somebody like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. or the #MeToo movement — can you translate that philosophy into that space?
It’s very dangerous territory here, very dangerous territory. I’m not comfortable getting into it, because then it could be misconstrued. I think people want to make things black and white because it’s easier. I guess all I can say on that matter is, I think that humans are very complex, and I think unless we start to understand damage and where it comes from, we won’t change. For example, the question of rape. I could not be more supportive of women, men, or anyone who was in that situation, but I’m also interested in what causes young boys to learn and think that that behavior is okay — and not only okay, that it’s preferable.
For example, with Hawkins, I read a psychological text called Men Who Rape, and it was interviews with anonymous incarcerated men who talked openly about why they did these things. And it was heartbreaking, actually, and frightening — but very moving. And I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen. How do we treat our boys? How do we socialize people so this is the world we know with it? It’s a very deep question, but I guess these are my points. And for me — without offering a pat answer — the answer lies in Clare and Billy in this particular story, and how that relationship plays out. And the fact that where they end up is a miracle on some level.
The Babadook was this big breakout hit for you, and I’ve read that you were offered a lot of things in the aftermath, but turned down a lot of them. I’m curious what sorts of things you turned down, and why.
Babadook came in midlife for me, so I don’t have a desire to climb to the top of any tree. I’m a storyteller and that’s my focus, and I really want to tell stories I’m passionate about. And while those offers were very shiny, and offered more money, and it would have made my life a lot more comfortable, I just can’t do that. I’m not built like that. I’m not hardwired like that, so I have to feel an absolute love for a story. And for the things I’ve got coming up, I absolutely love, and I get up every day and just can’t wait to work on them. So, that’s the litmus test for me. If I don’t feel that, I just can’t take on a job. That’s not about, Oh, they’re beneath me, not at all. Some of the films I’ve been approached about are wonderful films, but they don’t have my name on them. If I’m not into something, I do a really bad job.
I want to talk a little bit about the idea of female anger. I think both of your movies thus far have delved into that theme pretty deeply —
[Ironically.] Women aren’t angry!
Yeah, we’re doing great!
We never get angry.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way women aren’t “allowed” to be angry in public. It’s been a big topic this year in particular; one of our writers, Rebecca Traister, even wrote a book about it. But your perspective, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that it’s a positive or motivating force. When both of your protagonists let themselves be angry, it kind of drove them to their own “happy” ending.
Yeah, it’s a catalyst. I have no judgment on emotion. Emotion is there. Feeling is there. If you feel rage, male, female, or otherwise, you can’t stop that. You can try, but it will come out in the most neurotic of ways, so I think just have it out. That’s my whole point with The Babadook: Have it out. Not to harm a child! That’s what happens when you don’t feel your rage, don’t find a way to face and to acknowledge, I’m really angry. I’m really angry that my husband died in an accident and left me in this situation.
I feel that women are very socialized to be dainty, and loving, and all those qualities; supportive, calm, mothering. We are more than that, so much more. And I think a lot of rage comes from disrespect of the power of the feminine, actually. Look at Durga, who’s Mother Divine. She’s got how many arms — six arms? And a few of them are holding swords — “If you don’t acknowledge my power, you’re going to hear about it!” We’re incredibly powerful beings. Don’t mess with us.
Something that made me angry when I was doing research for this interview is the incident that happened at Venice, when the journalist yelled at you, and called you a “whore” —
I thought it was a joke because the lead character gets called a whore in the front center of the film. I thought he was being sort of witty, and then I realized he was being literal.
Did it make you angry?
It didn’t make me angry because it was so silly. I’ve made the film. I know how I feel about it, and now I’ve stepped back and witnessed how others respond. Especially in Italy, there’s a macho culture. It exists on this idea that the masculine force is the most powerful. It is powerful, but if there’s an imbalance of it in the world, there are problems. So I could see it from a bigger perspective — people who feel threatened will lash out.
I’m sort of glad that it pushes buttons. The worst thing I think would be for people to say, “Oh, this film is boring.” If it pushes those buttons, I just don’t take it personally. I was very conscious when I made this film. I was very aware of what I was doing. I just couldn’t [predict] the backlash that it had there. I wasn’t prepared for it, but now I am.
When there is a backlash to something you’ve made, do you take any of it to heart? Do you ignore it? What’s the way that you sort of internalize it — or not?
I’m human. I made something I really care about and am honestly proud of, not even on an ego level, just because this story has not been told in my country and it’s a universal story. I’m proud that we all, as filmmakers who worked on it, have the guts to tell this story. It’s not an easy one. I don’t like being criticized or being told my work is shit, but I’m getting used to it. It’s okay. I think if you don’t want any feedback that’s negative, just don’t ever do anything. Just sit in a room and you’ll be fine, protected. I would say to younger filmmakers, “Just have the guts to be hurt by feedback. Be hurt and move on.”
I want to return to the idea about Australians not knowing much about this time period, or this specific sort of story. What’s been the response specifically from your country?
This resides in our DNA on a very big level, and I was most worried about a strange response. But, I have to say the Australians’ response was so mature. This might sound patronizing — I don’t mean it to be — but it’s been our blind spot for decades, what happened. And to have people come up to me in tears, wanting to hug me, wanting to tell me their stories on any level, wanting to interact, it doesn’t get better than that as a filmmaker. I’ve never been patriotic or nationalistic. But I’m proud because so much energy is spent on denial. When you go, “Hey, my ancestors are responsible. We did this. How can we evolve from it?” then that’s when real change starts to happen.
It needs to happen over here, too.
It does! It needs to happen around the world. It’s time. It’s very timely. There are a lot of obviously dark forces in America, but it makes people conscious. That’s the way that I like to look at it: That it wakes us up from our slumber of apathy. These forces have always existed, but now they’re just taking power, taking control. So we need to examine how we move through the world. Is it going to add to the violence or is it going to add to love, and compassion, and kindness, and empathy? All those qualities that are not sugary, nice qualities. They’re our lifeline. They have to be our lifeline as humans.
There’s been a conversation here surrounding the film Green Book, with some critics writing that it oversimplifies racism, that it papers over real systemic discrimination with a pat story line, sort of an “I don’t even see color,” white-redemption story. When you wrote the relationship between Clare and Billy, how did you avoid those pitfalls?
I haven’t seen that film, so I can’t comment on the film. But I think our way around any kind of simplification — sweetening, making things more sentimental — was to really make these characters real. And also to involve Aboriginal consultants and advisers, and ask for help, and give them the expertise that they deserve within this process. We had a Tasmanian Aboriginal elder who came onboard and authenticated the story on every level, and if it wasn’t authentic, he would tell us. I’m a white Australian and I know very few Aboriginal people — I’ve met many more throughout this process, but I think it’s about working on things like this together. Because a white person going in and making a story about Aboriginal people without consulting anyone — that to me is just insanity. We did our work and gave respect where it was due.
Your next project, Alice and Freda Forever, has been in development for a few years. Where does it stand now?
It kind of hasn’t been in development for a few years. It was on a hiatus while I was doing this, but now I’ve just finished a draft to take out to the world, and I’m really proud of [it]. Again, it might push a few buttons. It’s based on a true story. I cannot wait when we’re able to make it this year.
What buttons do you think it will push?
I don’t know! I don’t know. The American people will have to let me know that, and I’m sure they will. [Laughs.]